first person

Hypnotizing Myself to Fly

When I could no longer bear the idea of hurtling myself across the sky in a steel tube, I found more help than I expected.

Photo: Oleksii Karamanov/Getty Images/Tetra images RF
Portrait of young woman in plane illuminated with sunset light
Photo: Oleksii Karamanov/Getty Images/Tetra images RF
Portrait of young woman in plane illuminated with sunset light
Photo: Oleksii Karamanov/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

“Excuse me,” I said to the flight attendant greeting passengers and handing out packs of disinfectant wipes and headphones as she reached my aisle. My heart was pounding at the speed of hummingbird wings in mid-air, and I felt lightheaded. Taking full breaths felt like trying to lift cement with my lungs. I’d been in my seat for just five minutes as passengers were still filing in, cramming too-big carry-ons into too-small overhead bins; the jumbo Airbus felt like a tuna can. Despite my best efforts, I hadn’t been able to convince myself to sit down and buckle up. Every time my ass landed on the seat, I sprang back up as if it was covered in pushpins.

“Headphones? Hand sanitizer?” the flight attendant asked me with a plastered smile. “I have to get off this plane,” I replied. The inside of my skull alternated between images of the plane crashing into the Atlantic Ocean and an engine dislocating, sending us into a tailspin. “Can you please tell me what to do?” I asked desperately, realizing I was being side-eyed by oncoming passengers and the crew. “You want to get off the aircraft?” she asked in a now-serious tone two octaves lower than her greeting voice. “Well, I thought I wanted to go on a solo vacation for a long weekend,” I blurted back, “but now I just want to be home with my family.” My face was flushed with embarrassment. “Okay, well, you need to collect your belongings and go speak to the gate attendant.” she said. I scurried off the plane, keeping my eyes on my shoes the entire walk up the lengthy jet bridge. I watched as the gate agent typed for seemingly 20 minutes into a computer to dismiss me from the flight record. Luckily, I only had a carry-on, so fleeing was relatively easy. While humiliation lingered, my throat opened to take a full breath and my pulse settled as I walked out of JFK into a yellow cab headed home to Brooklyn. That was two summers ago.

My fear of flying began in my late 20s when, during a flight to Arizona, a typical bout of turbulence caused my stomach to drop and my mind to go straight to death. The sensation was new. Growing up in Virginia, with half of my family living in California, meant I’d been flying cross-country since infancy. If anything, long flights were boring but never dangerous. I hoped it was a momentary spook, but it wasn’t. From then on, weeks before a flight, anxiety played like the background music to my life, jolting me and radiating dread. I started taking Xanax and having a few drinks onboard, which were slight and momentary fixes, but after having a baby, I couldn’t be buzzed and be a caretaker in the air. It didn’t help that Xanax was no longer as effective for me. My regular dose could keep me zombielike and calm for about an hour before sending me into an exaggerated panic due to the rebound effect.

But deboarding that cross-continental flight was the worst it had ever been. I chalked it up to matrescence, a type of second adolescence, a psychological and social-identity shift, that occurs during the onset of motherhood, as coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973. Since having my son, my urge toward physical safety, for both him and myself, had heightened. The notion that I can’t die! This kid needs me! took hold early on. I assumed my fear of flying was my brain’s misguided attempt to keep everyone safe and alive. I viewed it as an overreaching parenting glitch. It probably didn’t help that the pandemic had halted travel and this was my first time confronting a long-haul flight in over two years.

The following fall, I booked a vacation for my wife, kid, and me to Portugal for that November. Maybe with my family in tow, I reasoned, I would be able to muster the trip. Besides, I was not going to let deboarding one international flight stop me from trying again. Then, three weeks before takeoff, I awoke in the night in a full sweat with a familiar sense of doom. I couldn’t stomach the thought of being untethered to the ground. I could feel my throat squeeze shut. What kind of mother would I be to knowingly put my family in harm’s way like this? The next morning, I canceled our trip. “It’s okay. We can try going somewhere closer this winter,” my wife assured me. She was supportive but kindly reminded me that this was not a long-term way for us to live. I did manage to visit my parents in Phoenix that winter, and even made it to our family’s annual spring-break trip to Miami. Last June, I compelled myself to fly seven hours across 3,461 miles to London.

The thought of my son having childhood stories of his crazy mom canceling travel plans last minute because she was scared was more than I could bear. I white-knuckled the flights, trying to do deep-breathing exercises and distracting myself with in-flight comedies and lots of crunchy snacks. “This is okay, right?” I’d say to my wife every 20 minutes as we bumped along the sky seeking reassurance. I watched the calm flight attendants move about the plane, trying to gain their sense of ease and security via osmosis. Nothing worked, and I spent the majority of each flight in a physical state of hypervigilance. At best, I maintained the heartbeat of a leisurely jog when the seat-belt-fasten sign was off, but as soon the light changed, my lungs compressed and my heart pounded. Sweat poured. My muscles would ache, like I’d taken a three-hour weight-lifting class, the mornings after flying from being in a state of constant tension the day before.

As my son turned 4 and with pandemic travel restrictions more or less completely behind us, I no longer wanted to live our life, our adventures, limited by the least number of miles I could get away with suffering through. In an act of desperation, I asked my therapist about hypnosis.

Historically, I am skeptical of alternative treatments, worried about feeding grifters. But given that we’d already spoken about how talk therapy alone wasn’t always effective for physical symptoms of trauma, I reasoned that my fear of flying might call for something different. She encouraged me to try. So I found a New York–based licensed counselor who specialized in common hypnosis needs — fears, lack of control, anger issues — and worked with creative folks, particularly those experiencing writer’s block and stage fright. I reached out. On the phone, her thick Russian accent was authoritative and soothing. She shared how her experience of being a mother of two young children helped her understand the psychological changes of parenting. Maybe it was the accent, some motherhood bond, or the desire to hand over my problem to someone else, but I forged on and booked the $345 60-minute Zoom session.

Before the session, I changed into my comfiest house clothes and draped myself in my heaviest, fluffiest blanket, eager to enter a state of hypnosis and have my brain reprogrammed. Tanya popped up on my computer screen looking like a stock-image search for “mental-health professional”: knit sweater, straight long hair, nondescript office space behind her, black rolling chair. I had imagined her sitting in a field of wildflowers or at least having a psychedelic poster hanging in the background.

Right away, I dove into my theory on motherhood and identity: that my fear of flying steamed from the need to keep myself and my son safe, which had been an overactive reflex since becoming a mother. Before I got too carried away, Tanya asked if I could remember exactly when my flying fear began and she then politely pointed out that my fear of flying had actually increased before I became a parent, about two years before in fact. “Did anything unusual occur around the time of the uptick?” she asked. My stomach twisted and my throat went sandy. As concisely and unemotionally as I could, I breezed through the assault I experienced in my neighborhood late one night in the summer of 2016. But as I talked, I mostly focused on all the work I’d done in therapy and connecting and being open with others, and how it was now a non-issue in my life. “It doesn’t affect me anymore,” I told Tanya. This was not what I wanted to discuss. “What has specifically helped?” she asked, refusing to drop the subject. “Aside from the chronic therapy, reconfiguring my relationship with alcohol, and patience? Leaving places when I feel uncomfortable has been hugely helpful,” I said. “Even knowing that I can leave has been incredibly powerful for me. I need to feel in charge of where my body is.”

She waited and stared. I blinked back, unable to figure out what she wanted me to conclude. “And how about when you’re on a plane?” she pushed. “Well, I can’t leave a plane.” She nodded. My most important coping strategy, to flee, to move my body anywhere else, was not available to me at 26,000 feet in the air. My eyes welled and a deep sadness that lived right under the surface of my fear and frustration opened. While I had learned to cope in many ways, I realized I still hadn’t figured out how to sit still in discomfort. Moreover, I was still equating discomfort with immediate danger. “You don’t need to leave when you’re on a plane,” she said flatly. “There is no safer way to travel these days. You and your family are safe.”

Finally, we began the hypnosis. She led me in what felt like an individual guided meditation, starting with a countdown from 200 and prompts to visualize numbers and a serene setting. Once I reached a state of relaxation, literally feeling like I could not open my eyes or move my limbs, she spoke in concise and repeated phrases, telling me that I did not have to leave the plane, that I was safe, that I was calm, and that flying would now be an experience that brought about ease. During that time, she walked me through a visual exercise, starting at my apartment and going all the way to the plane landing.

When our session was over, I had homework. Tanya instructed me to do facial tapping (EFT) once a day while repeating a mantra (I always feel safe when flying. I am completely at ease and relaxed) and listening to my hypnosis session, which she had recorded twice a week prior to my upcoming six-hour flight to Los Angeles. I left the session relaxed but doubtful that much would change. While everything Tanya said about my need to flee made sense, I was frustrated to still be dealing with more post-trauma effects. More than anything, I wanted healing to be finite, but I’d been to enough therapy to know it isn’t linear. Over the next two weeks, I dutifully completed my meditations and daily mantras. Within days, I noticed the background noise of my typical flight anxiety was silent. Not once did I consider canceling my trip, and I hadn’t yet woken up once in the middle of the night with pre-travel sweats. Tentatively, I chalked it up to a placebo effect.

The morning of my flight I felt completely at ease and relaxed. Not a twinge of nerves tingled as I made my way through security. As I boarded, I felt nothing other than a curiosity of what movies would be showing and if I’d actually get any of the work done that I planned. I noticed my heartbeat, slow and steady, and scanned my brains for thoughts of disaster but found none. It was as if I’d been lobotomized.

As we neared Los Angeles, the plane began its descent hurdling over snowy mountain peaks. Not a flash of fiery explosion imagery or a drop in my stomach occurred. I am not sure if it was a placebo effect, or brain rewiring, or the realization that I don’t always need to escape that seemingly eradicated my fear. I peered outside the window taking in the serene scene below, appreciating the novel angle and sense of calm, happy for the moment even if it turned out to be temporary.

Hypnotizing Myself to Fly